(Editor's note: Corrects language describing the groups filing the lawsuit.)
(CNSNews.com) - Animal rights activists, Native Americans and hikers collectively filed suit Monday to prevent New Jersey's first bear hunt in 33 years from taking place on the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
The Delaware Water Gap is comprised of over 67,000 acres of protected park land, which houses more than 130 species of rare and endangered birds, mammals, and plants. The park makes up about 20 percent of the total area open to the state's bear hunt.
The coalition says bear hunting on protected park lands is in violation of federal environmental laws.
The hunt is scheduled for Dec. 8. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include: The Fund for Animals, The Center for Animal Protection, The Humane Society of the United States, and several individuals.
"Regardless of what happens on New Jersey's state lands, national parks are unique and require special attention," said Michael Markarian, president of The Fund for Animals.
"The National Park Service has thumbed its nose at federal law by allowing the trophy hunting of bears without studying the potential impacts to the environment, to the bear population, and to rare species such as bald eagles," Markarian said.
"Bears are not a public safety threat in New Jersey, but thousands of bear hunters in our woods are the real danger," said Sue Russell, policy director for the New Jersey-based Center for Animal Protection.
"What our state needs to solve bear/human conflicts is not to shoot bears at random for trophies, but rather to implement a progressive policy of aversive conditioning, authentic public education, and bear habitat preservation," said Russell.
A poll commissioned by several New Jersey wildlife organizations found 58 percent of registered New Jersey voters are opposed to the bear hunt, while 67 percent think the state should use non-lethal methods to reduce bear-related incidents instead of the hunt.
Sixty-eight percent of voters say Gov. James McGreevey broke his campaign promise to support a five-year ban on bear hunting.
"New Jersey voters will long remember Governor McGreevey turning his back on bears. If the governor won't stand by his word, we will ask the court to prevent the circumvention of our federal environmental laws," said Wayne Macelle, senior vice president for the Humane Society of the United States.
Last month, the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance Foundation announced it plans to look into the merits of a lawsuit separate from the Delaware Water Gap issue. This lawsuit is against the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to suspend all hunting, fishing and trapping.
Bud Pidgeon, president of the foundation, said the suit alleges that the state's Division of Fish and Wildlife has issued sporting licenses to convicted felons.
"To besmirch the reputation of sportsmen by linking us to felons is unconscionable," said Pidgeon. "Sportsmen are America's greatest conservationists, paying literally billions each year to fund fish and wildlife programs across the country."
Steve Ember, a plaintiff in the Delaware Water Gap suit and a prominent hike leader who has led hundreds of hikers into the park land, said, "Almost every hiker I've known has been thrilled to see black bears in New Jersey. The experience of observing wild bears ranks among the highest benefits of hiking. We don't want our bear population and our hiking experiences jeopardized."
"For many generations, the bear has lived in harmony with the Native Americans," said Santos Hawk's Blood, a plaintiff in the suit and a member of the Chiricahua Apache Nation and the Lone Warrior Society.
"The bear is our four-legged relative who gave us the knowledge to heal ourselves. That is why we call him brother. While our brother bear has tried to share the land, his home, with us, he is blamed any time he shares the crops or the property of the people. He is called a 'problem' even if human neglect, ignorance, or carelessness is really to blame," Hawk's Blood said.
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